Native Southwest Plants for Better Health

February is National Heart Health month, and today we look at overall body (including heart) health using plants native to the Southwest.

Native Peoples and Native Plants

Depending on source or the estimate, the Southwest had three to five million inhabitants before contact with Europeans. These people grew or harvested their food from the land around them, and were, on the whole, remarkably healthy. The picture has changed. Modern European foods have been introduced to Native cultures, and medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and obesity are prevalent in the Native populations. The solution to these medical problems lies just outside our door. Step into the Sonoran and Mohave Deserts and harvest the foods that help the body stay healthy.

In the late 1600’s Father Kino came to the Southwest. European diseases like smallpox had already ravaged the Native populations.

European Diseases

Diabetes, and complications from the disease, is the number three killer of adults in America today. Diabetes is especially prevalent in Native desert peoples. The local Tohono O’odham and Pima have the dubious distinction of suffering the highest incidence of adult-onset diabetes in the world. Australian Aborigines and Ethiopians are not far behind. In all cases, those that hold to the old ways and eat the traditional desert foods do not develop the disease. So what is so healthy about desert plants?

Native Southwest Plants Grow the Solutions

Southwestern plants grow in an arid environment and are naturally high in soluble fibers which help them store water. Soluble fibers include gums, pectins and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates break down slowly in the body, thus the body can more easily secrete the correct amounts of insulin and glucagon to maintain proper blood sugar levels. Pectins and gums appear to help slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates as well.

Foods high in soluble fibers are considered “slow release foods.” Chia, psyllium, flax seeds, fenugreek, and many desert plants contain various soluble fibers and mucilage that slow absorption of carbohydrates. This is measured as the glycemic index of a food. Tests indicate that a diet high in slow release foods helps protect people prone to the disease from developing diabetes. Slow release foods are very important to diabetics as well, as they help keep blood sugar from rising suddenly, or “spiking.”

Foods high in soluble fibers have also been show to lower cholesterol. Studies show that compounds in these fibers bind with fats and move them undigested out of the intestinal tract. The fibers may also increase liver activity to remove “bad” cholesterol from the blood.


Heart Healthy Minerals

Southwest native plants grow in mineral rich soils, and are generally rich sources of magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, iron, selenium, and calcium. These minerals are important for normal functioning of the body. The following notes on minerals were gleaned from a number of studies done in the last two decades. In all cases, further studies are under way. Thus far, studies show an average higher maintained blood serum level of minerals when they are consumed daily from plant food sources as opposed to swallowed as supplements.


The human body needs magnesium for many aspects of health. Magnesium works with calcium and plays a major role in keeping bones stable and reducing osteoporosis. When from food sources, magnesium was shown to reduce hypertension. Magnesium helps the pancreas secrete insulin. Many diabetics are deficient in magnesium, and the deficiency can exacerbate the disease. Low dietary intake of magnesium has been linked with impaired lung function and wheezing in asthmatics. Reduced blood levels of copper also appear to play a role in severe asthma attacks.


This mineral is currently in the news because zinc supports immune function. It’s needed in the manufacture of immune cells. Higher blood levels of zinc appear to be a factor in why people at risk for hereditary cancers do not develop the disease. Zinc levels in the blood are often lower in diabetics. Zinc appears to help maintain healthy blood sugar levels, although the mechanism is not understood.



A trace mineral, selenium in higher levels in the blood is linked to lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and lower cancer rates. In one small study it was linked to reduction of insomnia.


We all know that vitamins are important. Southwest native plants are good sources of vitamins A, C, beta carotene, thiamine, folic acid, riboflavin, and niacin. These last four, considered parts of the B vitamin complex, have demonstrated usefulness in reducing high cholesterol, and in maintaining good cholesterol levels in healthy individuals. Folic acid is arguably not a B vitamin, but is required for the absorption and utilization of the B complex.

Which Native Plants?

So which native plants did the Native peoples eat? Depending on the tribe and clan, almost every plant growing in their area provided food in some season. There are numerous books by tribe (Seri, Apache) or by biogeographic region (Baja, Sonoran Desert). A single source for the entire Southwest would fill an encyclopedia since there are well over 10,000 plants in the area, not even counting the European introductions (like mustards).


Here at Savor the Southwest we tend to focus on the foods used by the tribes in Southern Arizona – especially the O’odham and Yoeme (Yaqui).** Their foods included plants found in the desert as well as those found in wet canyons and upper mountain slopes. A partial list includes: acorn, agave, amaranth greens and seeds, barrel seed, chia seed, chilitepin, cholla buds, devils claw, goosefoot greens, grapes, graythorn berries, hackberry fruits, ironwood seeds, jojoba nuts, juniper, mammalaria fruit,  mesquite pods and gum, mistletoe berries, ocotillo, oxalis, palo verde beans, palm fruit, passion fruit, pinyon pine nuts, prickly pear fruits and pads, purslane, saguaro fruits, saltbush, tepary beans, walnuts, wolfberry fruits, and yucca flowers. The O’odham also grew many crops, primarily corn, tepary and lima beans, squash, and sunflowers, along with cotton and tobacco.

** We certainly welcome guest posts – please leave a note in the “Be the first to leave a reply” section below!

Proceed With Care

Some desert plants are toxic. Some plants can cause intestinal distress if you are unused to them. Moderation is key, as is proper plant identification. Enjoy, but do so carefully. The information provided in this article is for your reference and is not to be used as a substitute for qualified medical attention.

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soule-savor-kinoMore cooking and using Southwestern native plants in Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies at no additional cost to you.

© Article copyright Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. You must include a link back to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

Featured Photo:

Mojave woman pounding mesquite beans in a metate made from the stump of a tree ca.1900

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